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While browsing your safari itinerary, you may come across the odd reference to “sundowners” in scenic locations. The sundowner is as much part of your African experience as your game-drive and really should be elevated in status accordingly, one of the main events, rather than tagged on the end like a party bag. Last week, on noticing the beautiful evening that the day and become, we spontaneously hauled out our cool-boxes and biltong (sundried yummy meat snacks), piled into the truck and headed for the hills. North of Harare lies a beautiful rock rising out of the ground in a big smooth hump. It looks over the sleepy villages and provides an ideal vantage point for the vast night sky. The best sundowner points always involve a bit of a clamber which somehow justifies that gin and tonic. So, seated bare foot and relaxed on the sun-warmed rock, we watched a huge red ball of a sun make a lazy descent and the stars light up one by one along with the kerosene lamps in the houses. The last of the day’s bird calls mixed with the sounds of evening chores from the villages below and the smell of wood-smoke. One friend had come from London and this was an entirely new experience; just sitting quietly on top of a rock, with a cold drink, smelling, hearing and feeling Africa as night crept up the sky. As a veteran of the sundowner, I remember evening game drives interrupted for a cold beer on top of the landcruiser out on the grassy plains of the Mara with the sound of the crickets loud in my ears and hyena whooping. There have been lovely times watching the light fade over Mt Kenya, as viewed from Samburu, and early evenings, feet and drinks cooling in a river, nightjars swooping overhead. The air is somehow softer at that time of day and it is as good as meditation for putting things in perspective, just sitting quietly and not thinking about very much at all. So, instead of rushing around after the big game as the ultimate safari objective, consider when you will next have the opportunity to sit somewhere so wild at the end of a day (far away from other people, cars, towns, noise and light) and feel so content. I'll raise a glass to that... Image courtesy of Wilderness Safaris, Selinda, Botswana
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit Matobo National Park (formerly the Rhodes-Matopos National Park), just 30km south of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Now a World Heritage Site, Matobo is a place of significant historical, cultural, and natural interest. The San have left calling cards consisting of over 50,000 rock paintings, Matabele king Mzilikazi is interred here (wagons and all), and Sir Cecil John Rhodes is buried in a 6' grave carved into solid rock overlooking the "View of the World". Matobo has a pretty impressive concentration of rhino and elusive leopard and the birdlife is very special indeed, with an indecent number of raptors (including 200 breeding pairs of black eagles). For more detailed information, visit the Zimbabwe part of the Natural High Safaris web-site
As a biology undergraduate drifting in and out of consciousness in my lectures, I have memories of the word “equilibrium” cropping up rather a lot. As I remember, it described the way in which two or more groups of things coexist in some kind of a balance. It all sounded nicely logical. Harmonious even. And it possibly is if you’re describing plants or things living in rock pools. But how is anything approaching a balance achieved if you take 3000 crocodiles, a thousand odd hippos, and millions of fish and pop them all in to a lake a couple of miles wide? What is there to prevent only one extremely fat animal remaining after a couple of weeks? This was the thought that occurred to me a couple of weeks ago as, on a walking safari in the Selous, I spent the night out under a star-filled sky on the edge of the stunning Lake Tagalala. The density of large cantankerous animals in this place defies belief. The relatively small patch of water is literally stiff with life. It supports everything from the aforementioned crocs, hippos and fish, to endless species of bird that have evolved ingeniously different ways of making life for anything that lives in the lake intolerable. So sitting on the shore and watching life go by, I couldn’t help thinking that any notion of equilibrium here must be anything but calm and harmonious. Quite the opposite, it must be the net result of a horrendous cycle of violence balanced by what, given a distinctly unromantic atmosphere, is an impressive level of procreation. And while it seems that crocs and hippos exist in their own little armed truce, with the occasional mutual indiscretion (“I’m sorry I sat on you / bit you in half /by mistake ate your grandmother” etc) the same really doesn’t seem to be the case for fish. For them life seems to involve a lot more "give" than "take". As I sat having breakfast by the lake shore, everything seemed to be casually snacking on fish. Pied and malachite kingfishers used dead trees in the shallows as perches from which to catch small fry. A grey heron used the back of hippo as a fishing pontoon, fish eagles casually cruised in every couple of minutes on long slow glides to effortlessly pluck a writhing fish from the water. A pair of ospreys methodically quartered the lake, plunging time after time into the water, only to emerge – albeit often fishless - and shake themselves in flight, exactly as a dog does after a bath. And every few minutes, the long snout of a croc would break the surface with yet another poor fish doing its bit to sustain the equilibrium… In the 20 minutes or so it took me to drink my coffee before breakfast, I must have witnessed the demise of at least as many fish. That’s just in the very small area where I was sitting and in only 20 minutes. A fish a minute biting the dust? How on earth do they sustain this hour by hour, day in day out? I’m sure if I’d paid more attention during lectures I’d be able to explain concisely why what I was seeing is simply the manifestation of some kind of equilibrium – that broadly speaking births equal deaths and things perpetuate. But when you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that nature works in such an elegant way. And extraordinary that the net result of all this random activity is not, as you might expect, just the big greedy animals left, but spectacular diversity. An unimaginable array of different species of different sizes and ages, living their complex lives together, hugger-mugger. Now that’s what I call a balancing act.
Jean du Plessis, who runs these walking safaris in the Serengeti has a couple of great Easter safaris planned in April this year. The safaris are mobile, using the light mobile camp in this film, and take in the Serengeti, Gol Mountains, the Ngorongoro Highlands and Lake Manyara. This will offer a mixture of walking and some exceptional game areas. 10 days on safari starts at £2200 per person based on a group of 4. Drop us an email if you'd like to hear more.
As we rounded another thicket and crossed the sandy river bed, there were more fresh droppings and scrape marks of the biggest white rhino in Rhodes Matopos National Park, Zimbabwe. Stepping into the not-insubstantial footprints of the rhino with my own size sixes, I pondered that I might not have thought this little exploit through sufficiently. Over breakfast that morning, the idea of tracking rhino on foot had seemed like an excellent plan and I could already see the title of the blog that I would write (something along the lines of “Face-to-face with five tonnes of rhino”). In any case, putting oneself in mortal danger in the name of in-depth research is part of the job....someone has to do it. Now out on the trail through preposterously high grass and thick bush, heart hammering loud enough for the deafest rhino to hear, I was rather uncomfortable with the thought that the only thing standing between me and the rhino appeared to be one tall, slender khaki-clad guide...he didn't look as though he'd slow a speeding rhino. I made a mental note of likely looking ant hills to shin up. Ian Harmer has grown up in the Matobo Hills. His family rocked up in 1892 and he spent his childhood barefoot on the farm. Now risen to the lofty heights of 4th best guide in the world (courtesy of Wanderlust Travel Magazine), Ian is possibly the best person to be with when thrashing around on the hunt for rhinos. His casual confidence and clear mastery of the bush just about kept me from shinning up the nearest tree at every snap of a twig. After a lengthy but fascinating synopsis of the dynamics of rhino territory, and a short drive to find the freshest spoor, we had followed Ian into a triangle between two roads and a river in search of Swazi, a 45 year old male white rhino. We could smell him, see the tell-tale flattened grass where he had spent the night, see the dung piles marking his territory and touch the smooth trunks of saplings where he had stopped for a belly rub. It was incredibly exciting. Regrettably, the weather closed in and our time ran out before we caught up with Swazi, but the time spent on his trail was infinitely more exciting than any rhino viewed from the relative safety of a vehicle. Rhodes-Matopos National Park is one of the best places to view rhino - indeed a couple of days later, Ian found 9 with some other guests. Photograph courtesy of Ian Harmer